Nobuko Imai Plays Hindemith

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HINDEMITH: Viola Sonatas: Op. 11, No. 5; Op. 25, No. 1; Op. 31, No. 4; 1937 / Nobuko Imai, violist / Bis CD-571

Paul Hindemith, in addition to being a very interesting composer, was also a multi-talented instrumentalist whose primary instrument was the viola. Now, I admit not being enough of an expert to tell you why the viola is considered harder to play than the violin, but apparently it is because there have always been far more violin virtuosi in any given era than violists, and I keep hearing viola players praised to the skies as if they were playing classical music on a Didgeridoo or a Jew’s Harp. In my estimation—and I’m probably wrong—I would think that almost any world-class violinist could pick up a viola and get the feel of it within a month. Certainly, I have seen many recordings of viola music played by famous violinists over the years (Josef Suk is just one such), yet the few star violists that have emerged always seem to be given superstar status.

Personally, I think the only reason there aren’t more solo violists is that the instrument isn’t really a glamorous one. It has a range similar to a tenor or baritone violin, lying lower than the violin and pretty much above a cello, but whereas the cello has a gorgeous, sumptuous, almost “vocal” tone,  the viola just sounds, most of the time, like a low violin—an unglamorous brother, you might say.

In Hindemith’s time, aside from himself, the two most famous violists were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose, although the NBC Symphony’s Carlton Cooley also made a good showing in concerts as a solo violist (he was lucky enough to sit beside Primrose in the NBC Symphony for a few years). I have recordings of Hindemith playing viola with his own Amar Trio and Quartet, and from what I can hear (the recordings were made in the early electrical period, but on muddy-sounding Polydor records), he was very fine indeed.

But perhaps because he felt he was writing them only for himself and a handful of others, Hindemith didn’t produce a truly sequential group of solo viola sonatas. They are not numbered in order; they just sort of popped up in his output at odd times between 1919 and 1937; yet in the end he wound up with four of them.

Originally, I wanted to review the new recording of these works by Luca Raineri on Brilliant Classics, but the recorded sound was completely unnerving. Raineri’s instrument is absolutely booming off the walls with a harsh, artificial-sounding reverb, as if it were recorded in an empty locker room with metal walls. He played the music very well, but I couldn’t listen to more than one movement of one sonata, so instead I hunted around online and came up with this splendid 1992 recording by Nobuko Imai.

Imai’s style is a little less “musical” and a bit more mechanical-sounding than Raineri’s. Like so many Oriental string players nowadays, she has a fabulous technique but tends to emphasize speed of execution over phrasing. She does, however, accent the music rhythmically in a strong, almost masculine manner, which is very similar to the way Hindemith himself played the viola, and in doing so she proves that the viola can be just as attractive and interesting as the violin in the hands of the right performer.

Even in the first movement of the Op. 11 sonata, Hindemith asks for a great many strong downbow attacks. The music has sharp corners; it is not soft and comforting, but dynamic and forceful, and Imai handles this perfectly. In the slow second movement she does indeed show that she can phrase lyrically, yet once again one hears sharp corners in this music. It is not a soporific. It is bracing.

Indeed, I hear in these sonatas more of a kinship to Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin than to Ysaÿe’s solo violin sonatas. There seemed to me much more of a relationship in style, particularly in the fast movements, to the Paganini works. This is not a bad thing, and I would go further and say that they are related to Paganini in another way: Hindemith exploits the high range of the viola far more than most composers for this instrument normally do. I would daresay that, playing the fast movements especially for a listener unfamiliar with these works (as I was prior to hearing these recordings), he or she would almost immediately think that they were solo violin works. By emphasizing the upper register, Hindemith brought out more brightness in playing the viola than many other composers did, or still do.

One thing I found interesting was the leap in style between the first sonata, written in 1919, and the second, written in 1922. The first, though quite dramatic in places, is closer (particularly in the slow movements) to late Romanticism in harmony, whereas the second is already starker, using more modal harmony and form. Hindemith was already beginning to reject Romantic expression, which he felt was “sterile and hedonistic,” yet even here the third movement (“Sehr langsam”) retains a nice legato sound and is less modal than the surrounding movements. Moreover, the fourth movement, “Rasendes Zeitmass. Wild. Tonschoenheit ist Nebensache,” is particularly edgy in a way that surpasses the edgy moments in the first sonata. And this is the style of the next sonata (Op. 31, No. 4), written the following year (1923).

In the second movement of the last sonata, from 1937, Hindemith uses pizzicato across all of the instrument’s strings, creating an effect almost like a guitar (or perhaps a banjo). In this sonata, all of the ideas that had come to him in the earlier sonatas are more fully integrated into the structure, creating a more complete progression and interaction of ideas.

These are wonderful, bracing works, played with a wonderfully bracing style by Imai. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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